It’s been more than two years since Michael Porter Jr. was supposed to take over basketball. A 6-foot-10 forward with deadeye shooting, enviable skill, and a lanky frame that inspired comparisons to Kevin Durant, Porter left high school as the no. 2 recruit in the country. He joined his brother, Jontay, at Missouri, primed to take a program that had never reached the Final Four to the promised land.
Then Porter injured his lower back two minutes into his first game as a Tiger, and surgery kept him off the floor until March, when he (understandably) underwhelmed in Missouri’s final two games of the season. Questions about Porter’s health dropped him down big boards, and he was taken by the Nuggets with the last lottery pick in the 2018 draft. The pre-draft concerns were grounded in reality: A month after the draft, Porter was ruled out for the season to undergo a second back surgery.
On Tuesday, the once and perhaps future star checked into his first official NBA game, scoring nine points on 4-for-7 shooting in 17 minutes in Denver’s preseason opener against the Trail Blazers. His performance, while delayed—he didn’t enter the game until the end of the third quarter—was a sign of hope for Nuggets fans who were skeptical about whether Porter would be able to contribute at all. He hadn’t played organized basketball in 571 days, but here he was, oozing potential.
If Porter can be even part of what he was once supposed to be, his ascendance would serve as something as a coup for Denver. Last season, the Nuggets surprised many by finishing with the second-best record in the West before bowing out to the Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals. Their quiet offseason—seriously, Jerami Grant is the only notable addition they made—raised eyebrows. But Porter’s emergence could be more than just a feel-good story for a player who’s suffered through two season-ending injuries; it could be what carries Denver to the top of the conference.
Porter isn’t the only notable pivot player in the league this season. Nearly every team has a guy who could drastically change his squad’s fortunes for the better, or worse, depending on his play. With the preseason firmly underway, here are a few players who could make or break their team’s campaigns.
Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
So I don’t want to alarm anyone, but Markelle Fultz might be back? Like, for real this time. We’ve all watched practice videos of Fultz putting up what seem like hitch-free jumpers and explosive cuts, but it wasn’t until his performances against the Spurs and Pistons in the Magic’s first two preseason games that I was willing to believe what I saw. Through two contests, the former Washington Huskies star has averaged seven points and 5.5 assists in just over 19 minutes, and he delivered a handful of highlight plays in the process.
“Process” might be the key word here too. Fultz was supposed to be the missing piece to a Philadelphia team armed with two elite players who could dominate inside but both looked uncomfortable beyond the arc. After two lost seasons, some Chick-fil-A, and very few smiles, the Sixers lost patience and flipped Fultz to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons—a lackluster wing with a superfluous skill set who was dumped shortly thereafter—a 2019 second-round pick (Carsen Edwards was taken), and a 2020 first-rounder. Fultz didn’t suit up once for the Magic last season, and the “bust” chants grew louder with each passing night.
But if what Fultz has shown thus far in the preseason is real—if he can actually deliver on the promise he demonstrated in college—the Magic have a legitimate shot at climbing up the Eastern Conference standings. Last year, without Fultz, Orlando finished seventh in the East and took the opening game of its first-round series against the Raptors before Kawhi roared back. At Washington, Fultz shot 41.3 percent from deep on five attempts per game. That kind of marksmanship could be pivotal for a team that had just two regular contributors nailing more than 37 percent of their 3s last season.
With $180 million tied up in Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic over the next few years, it’s safe to say the Magic are looking to start making deep playoff runs. Whether they’ll be able to accomplish that will largely depend on Fultz’s ability to run the point. Beyond him, their point guard options are a 31-year-old D.J. Augustin and another Sixers point guard washout, Michael Carter-Williams. Just as Fultz was supposed to be in Philly, he could be this team’s missing piece.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Wiggins has a higher annual salary than Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Anthony Davis, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. That feels like a good place to start a conversation about his necessary impact for a Timberwolves squad entering year five of the Wiggins-Towns experiment. In 2017, convinced that Wiggins was far from reaching his ceiling, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor awarded his young wing a max contract, but not before sitting him down and telling him he had to live up to it.
“To me, by making this offer, I’m speculating that his contribution to the team will be more in the future,” Taylor said at the time. “We’ve got to be better. He can’t be paid just for what he’s doing today. He’s got to be better.”
Two seasons later, it looks like Wiggins may have peaked. Last season, he scored five fewer points per game than he did in 2016-17 and averaged just as many assists, and his true shooting percentage dropped to a career-low 49.3 percent. Wiggins’s enormous contract restricts what kinds of moves the Wolves can make to improve an underwhelming roster. Flipping an unhappy Jimmy Butler for Robert Covington and Dario Saric (who himself was moved for the pick that became Wiggins’s possible replacement, Jarrett Culver) was good business, but it wasn’t enough to carry Minnesota into the playoffs.
The Timberwolves’ near-future prospects depend on what they get out of Wiggins. Karl-Anthony Towns has proved he’s one of the league’s most exciting unicorns, but without a strong running mate, it’s hard to see the Timberwolves returning to the postseason. Wiggins is under contract through 2023, but if he can’t make another jump, his time as one of Minnesota’s flag bearers may be numbered.
Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
Sacramento’s 2018-19 campaign can be sorted into two blocks: the Before Harrison Barnes era (BHB) and the After Harrison Barnes era (AHB). Before the Kings sent Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph to Dallas for Barnes, they were 28-26, sitting just outside the no. 8 seed in the West and running the second-fastest pace in the NBA. After acquiring Barnes, the Kings cratered, going 11-17, playing at a slower pace, and finishing nine games outside of the conference’s final playoff spot.
This offseason the Kings made Barnes their highest-paid player, signing him to a four-year, $85 million contract that, along with De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley III, makes him a centerpiece for a young team with high potential. There are plenty of question marks on this roster—can Bagley build on an All-Rookie performance? What’s De’Aaron Fox’s ceiling? Will Harry Giles ever truly be able to contribute?—but the most pivotal of them is regarding Barnes. The former UNC standout won a title as the last man in Golden State’s starting five before cashing in with Dallas, where he put up empty stats on disappointing teams. The West is more wide open than it’s been in years, and for Sacramento to take advantage, it will need more from Barnes, who has had a full offseason to acclimate himself to Northern California.
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
No player in the NBA has as much defensive upside as Matisse Thybulle. In his senior year at Washington, the 6-foot-5 guard averaged 3.5 steals per game (4.5 per 40 minutes) and 2.3 blocks (2.9 per 40). In his scouting report leading up to the NBA draft, my colleague Kevin O’Connor said that he had “beast off-ball defender potential” and compared his skill set to that of Danny Green, Garry Harris, and first-team All-Defense Tony Allen. If Thybulle plays like any of his comps, the Sixers could make their first NBA Finals since 2001.
Fans raved about Thybulle’s defensive potential when he was drafted, but once the Sixers landed Al Horford and Josh Richardson in mid-July, they started drooling. A crunch-time lineup of Ben Simmons, Richardson, Thybulle, Horford, and Joel Embiid would be one of the most suffocating defensive fives in recent memory, and if Simmons’s newfound love of the deep ball—HE FINALLY HIT A 3—it could have enough offensive firepower to stay on the floor in clutch situations.
Thybulle has never been an offensive dynamo, and Sixers fans are likely weary of the addition of another lanky defensive youngster with questionable shooting skills, but Thybulle has a compact stroke and the potential to be an archetypical 3-and-D wing. Stat lines like the one he logged in Philly’s first preseason game (10 points on 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc, three steals, and two blocks) could be the norm. And if that’s the case, there might not be a team in the East that can stop the Sixers from reaching the Finals.